“What the Roberts Court lacks in practice experience it makes up in law teaching.”

March 1st, 2012

This new paper argues that the current composition of the Supreme Court differs from the historical averages–they don’t have practice experience, and teach too much!

This study compares the years of experience that preceded appointment to the Supreme Court for each Justice. The study seeks to demonstrate that the background experiences of the Roberts Court Justices are quite different from the Justices of earlier Supreme Courts and to persuade the reader that this is insalubrious.

The first proposition is an empirical one and the difference in Justice backgrounds is demonstrable. To determine how the current Justices compare to their historical peers, the study gathered a massive database that considers the yearly pre-Court experience for every Supreme Court Justice from John Jay to Elena Kagan. The results are startling and telling: the Roberts Court Justices have spent more pre-appointment time in legal academia, appellate judging, and living in Washington, D.C. than any previous Supreme Court. They also spent the most time in elite undergraduate and law school settings. Time spent in these pursuits has naturally meant less time elsewhere: The Roberts Court Justices spent less time in the private practice of law, in trial judging, and as elected politicians than any previous Court. The article argues that the change is regretful for multiple normative reasons, including the way these experiences lead to legal complexity in Court decisions, the lack of litigation or trial experience on the Court, and the lack of what virtue ethics calls “practical wisdom.”

And how much teaching experience?

What the Roberts Court lacks in practice experience it makes up in law teaching. With 95 collective years in legal academia, Roberts 4 is again first among all Supreme Courts in years spent in legal academia. Interestingly, the gap is not as large as some other categories; two Courts from the 1940s (Hughes 8 and Stone 2) are just behind with 94 total years.67 Unsurprisingly, given the rarity of law school training in the 19th century, most Supreme Courts during that period have no law teaching experience.68

The experience in law teaching helps explain why the Roberts 4 Court is relatively low in practice or elected experience. Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan spent much of their pre-­‐Court careers in academia.

Teaching. Not a bad way to start a career, eh?